I’ve read a lot of books so far this year, but I don’t have time to write about them all, so I’m writing about the ones that hit me in the gut. Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding The End Of The World is one of those books that at first seems very simple, and then becomes more complicated as one moves through the text. I don’t mean that the story becomes complicated; it’s better than that. This book is translated brilliantly by Lisa Dillman, who carefully dissected Herrera’s intentions by reading many other writers, including Cormac McCarthy and Lewis Carroll, as well as trying to create an English that was “geographically non-explicit.” This has the effect of disorienting the reader as they follow the protagonist, Makina, a young woman who leaves her small town in rural Mexico (in which she runs a switchboard, being the one who keeps track of the town’s communications), and crosses the border into a non-specific US territory. In doing so, she is stripped of her identity in several ways. She is searching for her brother, yet finds many other things.
Makina is a beautifully complex protagonist, one who seems to have a clear understanding of death and a tough demeanor (at one point she bends back the finger of a would-be suitor) but who is also vulnerable, as all women are, especially when traveling alone. Her toughness is surprising, as are her observations. When she comes to the United States she can’t help but note how the Americans stand in the self-checkout lines, “how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens.” In the town she arrives in there are signs prohibiting everything, which keep everyone feeling safe. While she notices these things, these signs of safety, she also sees how “wooden” everyone seems, how trapped in their languages (she is multi-lingual), and how plastic this new world seems. At the same time, it draws her in. She is hypnotized, in a way, by the sheen of America.
I think the most remarkable thing about this book is its use of language. There were many words I’d never seen before, translated specially for this text, because of (in the translator’s note) Hererra’s distinct style. This book is a quick read, nearly less that a hundred pages, and well worth reading twice. Despite its compacted syntax, it contains a multitude of linguistic and thematic complexities, and Hererra’s dip into Makina’s perspective, a man slipping into a woman’s perspective, reads seamlessly. I was stunned by this book.